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A Third Way at Christmastime

 About ten years ago, I used to write a weekly column called "Faithfully Yours" that ran in two newspapers. People would write in with whatever spiritual or religious questions were on their minds, and I'd offer my thoughts and sometimes advice.

For this week's message, I'm re-running, with modifications, one that ran around Christmastime. I hope you find it helpful.

Q:  I really want to feel "the Christmas spirit" but have had an increasingly harder time seeing through the malls and the parties and the pressures of the season.  And Christmas morning seems like it is all focused on presents. I don't want to sound like Scrooge, but am I the only one who is glad when Christmas is finally over?

A: No, you're not the only one who feels that way. For years, I've conducted a workshop called Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season, based on the book by that title, and I've heard hundreds of people express similar frustrations -  "Christmas has become too commercial....too materialistic...too pressured."

In the words of Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock-Staeheli, co-authors of the book,  "Christmas has become a long and elaborate preparation for an intense gift-opening ritual."

It's helpful to remember that Christmas wasn't always this way.

In fact, the way we observe Christmas here in the United States is rare. And it's a very recent phenomenon.

As little as sixty years ago, Christmas in this country was celebrated much like we now celebrate Thanksgiving: an unhurried, non-materialistic holiday centered around food and family. For hundreds of years, right up until the mid 1900's, people did not begin preparing for Christmas until about December 15th. And in the past (and still in other parts of the world), there was/is a recognition that December 25 is the first day of Christmas, Christmas being understood as a season lasting until January 6th, which is the "twelfth day of Christmas," or Epiphany Day.

Ah, how things have changed in only one lifetime! Today - as it's common to lament - we get our first sales catalogs in the mail before Halloween. Bu mid-December we're told HURRY IN for LAST-MINUTE savings. And twelve days of Christmas? No -- on December 26th, there's an asteroid-size stack of newspaper ads in our driveway already pushing "post-Christmas" sales!

Part of me is frustrated over and even offended about the way commerce and materialism has hijacked Christmas, and wants to join in the lament.

But another part of me recognizes the danger you name, that of becoming Scrooges. And as a minister, nor do I want to become a "Pastor Lindley."

Pastor Lindley is the fictional character in Phillip Gully's book, Christmas in Harmony:

"Though he was nice, Pastor Lindley had a few alarming tendencies, chief among them his sermons encouraging us to remember the reason for Christmas - that it wasn't about presents and cookies, but about God sending his son to be with us. I feared my parents might take his message to heart. I had nightmares about running down the stairs on Christmas morning to a tree with nothing under it, and my father sitting in his chair, a Bible balanced on his lap, smiling and saying, "your mother and I have decided that this year we're just going to thank God for the gift of his son, because that's the only gift we really need."

Truth be told, as a child, I loved counting down the days to Christmas, and I could hardly wait to see what Santa had brought. I loved, and still love, the somewhat-controlled frenzy of unwrapping presents -- "whose turn is it? who is this from? who hasn't opened a present in a while?" and I loved, and still love, the way new toys and new clothes seem to represent fresh starts and new beginnings. Pastor Lindley may be right that Jesus is the only gift we really need...but still, it's nice to get and give gifts to each other as well.  

So I think energy is best spent finding a third way, a way that helps us avoid the empty  commercialism and hurry of consumerism, and yet does not turn us into sappy Pastor Lindley's or Uncle Scrooges.

Finding that third way begins by remembering what the "first Christmas" - the day of Jesus' birth - was like.

First of all, it was full of hustle and bustle. We tend to romanticize the manger scene, making it seem fairy-tale like: Mary and Joseph sit adoring a glowing little baby Jesus, who is surrounded by adoring shepherds and cattle. But the Bible tells a very different story: A young, confused girl gives birth to her first child far away from home.

Second, the story is one of surprise. The child born to Mary is understood to be The Lord of the Universe entering the world - but not as we might expect God to come (in might or power or full-grown majesty), but as a fetus and then a naked, newborn, vulnerable infant. God's power is shown in vulnerability.

Third, the story is relevant to our daily lives.We tend to think the Christmas story doesn't have anything to do with the realpolitik of our actual lives. But the Bible tells us that shortly after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary must hurry from Bethlehem and flee to Egypt and live there as refugees because a paranoid king is plotting their baby's death - and he does in fact send soldiers to murder all newborn males in and around Bethlehem.

And yet!

And yet that same story of hustle, surprise, and realpolitik is announced by the angels as "good news of a great joy."

And so there's a "third way of Christmas" I'd suggest. It's one that rejects, on the one hand, the over-commercialism and also rejects, on the other hand, the over-sentimentalizing of Christmas.

This third way at Christmastime is to remember that we rejoice this time of year not because we've had a good or successful year, not because of the gifts we give or receive, and not even because we're surrounded by loved ones.

We rejoice at Christmas because God is near. Because God has entered in. Because God chooses to be part of -- not apart from - our daily, messy, ordinary, confused lives.

The third way of Christmas is to remember that God enters into life not in some ideal form, but as we actually know it and are actually living it. The third way of Christmas is to remember that God can be found, not away from the hustle and bustle and schlock, but in the very midst of it. The third way of Christmas -- available to anyone, anywhere, at any time -- is to remember that God enters in, and is near.

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